Matthew 5:21-37, Understanding God’s Law

[February 16, 2014] A week ago we considered Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-19. He had not come to abolish or annul the Law or the Prophets, by giving them a false interpretation, but to complete them—have the arrow hit the target (which is the meaning of Torah)—by giving their true interpretation. He speaks as the Coming One to whom all the Law and the Prophets refer. Not one dot, not one little stroke of the Torah is to disappear until it all (literally) “comes to be”—that is, until all that it foreshadows and predicts comes to pass. Therefore, in the kingdom of the heavens—namely with reference to his disciples—they must keep and teach the Halakah (the “walk” that God requires of us) as he interprets them. The gospel ends with Jesus commissioning his disciples to teach all that he commands to those who become his disciples among the nations.

This week we will consider four examples of how Jesus interprets the Halakah: You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; whether you can divorce; and you shall keep your oaths. There are six “antitheses” in all, and the word “again” that precedes the fourth neatly divides them in half. However, this morning I am not clear as to what that division would be based, other than numerically giving us two sets of three. They are called “antitheses” because at the beginning of each one Jesus sets forth a comparison: “you have heard how it was said to our ancestors … but I say this to you …”

Before we get started, however, we should understand from what perspective we will approach them. First of all, Jesus does not intend to abrogate any of the Torah. This he has already made clear. It is his intention to let the arrow hit the correct target. The Halakah as stated in the Torah is the arrow. The question is toward what is it aimed. Second, Jesus has called his disciples into a personal relationship to himself in which they owe him their allegiance and he takes responsibility for them. They are brought into the sphere of who he is and now share his relationship to God. Jesus now says to them, “Your Father who is in the heavens,” and teaches them to pray with him, “Our Father.” This also means that the “Father” now treats them according to this standard: they receive the love and grace of the Father that Jesus himself receives but also need to give the Father the faithfulness and trust and love that Jesus gives. In other words, they come under the government of the kingdom of the heavens. God becomes as a fire—the fire of holiness—that consumes what is not suitable for this relationship; only God is also the Father who takes responsibility for them as well. The fire of the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) is a metaphor for where garbage is disposed—they can render themselves “good for nothing”—and so can (initially) miss their inheritance in the kingdom of the heavens in the age to come. However, the fire is also purifying and will consume their dross in preparation for their final salvation.

So, in the case of each of these antitheses, we need to ask what Jesus means with respect to himself. If the disciple is placed where Jesus is in relation to the Father, what is Jesus saying first of all about himself? This would be in terms of fulfilling the particular Halakah. That gives us the perspective with which to begin.

You Shall Not Murder: Do Not Judge (Matthew 5:21-26)

Jesus says that the commandment itself only points us in the right direction. Really, we must cause no one harm when we become angry. It is not wrong to become angry (which is a legitimate emotion), but we will have to answer (to God) for what we do with our anger, whether it leads us to insult or abuse another, let alone cause physical harm. Even if we only verbally abuse another we will be accused by our witnesses (“before the Sanhedrin”); but if we go so far as to accuse them of being a rebel against God, thereby placing ourselves in God’s place, then God becomes our accuser—and we will be facing the prospect of being thrown into the incinerating fire of Gehenna.

The problem is not anger but what we do with it, how we act on it and whether we harm another, even if we only lash out at them with our words. (The word “anger” can express either of these: the emotion or the expression of the emotion. The problem is the later, not the former.)

Jesus speaks of being angry with “your sibling.” Considering his audience, the sibling is your fellow Jew, not merely your fellow disciple. It cannot be that he is saying that how you treat your gentile neighbor does not matter. The Jew is called to be a light to the gentile. When the Messiah comes, even gentiles will be made siblings. This means that every gentile with whom he comes in contact is potentially a sibling, depending on their ultimate relationship to him. In this context, therefore, I would presume to understand “your sibling” to be your fellow disciple first, your Jewish neighbors second, and every human being third—not in a scale of how they ought to be treated, but in terms of their relation to Jesus who calls—or will call—all people to himself. One relation is more obvious than another, but in the end God will judge them all the same.

What can we do? Jesus speaks of the Day of Atonement in verse 23-24. We need to seek reconciliation with God by repentance, but we can have no avail if we do not first reconcile with our sibling. To say sibling here accentuates the seriousness of our problem. God cares as much for the other as for us, and therefore the issue we have with the other becomes an issue we have with God. Do not bother seeking to be reconciled with God (by the offering you bring)—it would become a meaningless ritual—until you have become reconciled with your fellow.

In chapter 18 Jesus brings this up again in terms of the disciples’ relationship to each other. It is not in relation to the Day of Atonement. A disciple should be in a state of continual repentance. Since we have access to the Father constantly—as Jesus does—we should seek reconciliation immediately.

Our opponent in verses 25-26 is the fellow with whom we need to be reconciled. If something has come between us, we are already “on the way to the court with him,” the divine court, that is. God is our judge, and if we are thrown into prison (the equivalent to the fire in verse 22), we will remain there (not enjoying our inheritance in the kingdom of the heavens) until we have paid the last penny. Jesus speaks then of reparation, but the hard way. If we do not judge others, we will not be judged. If we forgive others, we will be forgiven. If we allow an issue to remain between us, we come under God’s judgment until it is resolved, even in the age to come!

Jesus speaks of if “your sibling has something against you,” not if you have something against them. If we have something against them, reconciliation becomes a matter of forgiveness. If they have something against us, presumably it is because we have done something to them, even if we feel that they deserved it—our anger was “righteous.” Nevertheless, we acted on our anger and did something, instead of committing the matter to God, even if it was “only” a word of insult or an accusation of wrong-doing in the sight of God (of which only God can be the judge) that slipped from our lips. Now we must seek to make right with them the wrong that we have done.

We may not feel that we have done any wrong, for we feel that they “deserved” it. But the standard by which God will judge us is what Jesus lays down in verses 22. As we will see, we cannot put ourselves in God’s place as judge because we ourselves are under God’s judgment. If we are angry, we must love generously and commit our anger to God, letting God be the judge. This is what it means to have undergone the baptism of repentance. We are now penitents, under God’s judgment, relying only on God’s mercy and grace, and committing all judgment to God. This is what Jesus did.

You Shall Not Commit Adultery: Do Not Covet (5:27-30)

“If a man looks at a wife in order to covet her, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Contrary to the translations, the passage is not about looking at women lustfully. In order to commit adultery with a woman, the woman has to be a wife. The word for wife is the same as the word for woman. “Your woman” is your wife. The wife is the property of the husband. When God commands us not to covet (desire to possess) our (male) neighbor’s “house,” the first item in the house is our neighbor’s wife, then his male and female slaves, then his work animals, and then the rest of his possessions. A man commits adultery when he starts thinking about how to acquire his neighbor’s wife, to possess her. This was what marriage was in Jesus’ culture. It was a property arrangement made with the father of the bride.

In our culture marriage is a matter of mutually belonging to each other. The wife is the husband’s property and the husband is the wife’s property. Legally they are equal, though socially the male is typically considered by other males to be supposed to have more dominance than the female. Many females are complicit in this supposition.

If males look at women as something they can possess, then the eye is for making the calculation and the hand is for grabbing. “If your eye should be your downfall, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body go to Gehenna.”

It is obvious that Jesus is talking about coveting what belongs to another male. Do not covet another man’s wife. Do not covet women this way at all! It is a terrible objectification of them. You are treating them as something to possess. It assumes masculine privilege and dominance. It dehumanizes the woman.

What if Jesus does not recognize that married women (or men) are property at all? It would mean that we would have to define marriage itself differently than it is assumed to be defined in the Bible. The Bible does not define marriage this way but it certainly takes this definition for granted in its laws. There is another way of considering marriage, but in the Old Testament it is only hinted at; this other way is never institutionalized in the Old Testament. In the Song of Solomon, the institution of royal marriage is assumed, but what is celebrated is love. What if from a divine point of view, marriage is about love and not property rights? If we exclude (and not merely ignore) the concept of ownership with respect to marriage, we would have to define marriage differently.

What Jesus may be assuming in this interpretation of “You shall not commit adultery” is a critique of property itself. Jesus does not believe in possessing any goods, let alone a human being. He would not have recognized what we consider the basis of a capitalist economy: that people have an exclusive right to the use of certain goods.

To possess is not the same as to use. Of course Jesus used things (not people). But for me to possess something means that I have the right to keep you from using it, even if I am not using it. That is what our entire economic system is based on, and Jesus does not seem to buy it.

From this perspective, if I “use” a man’s wife without his consent, I have violated his property rights. To want to do this is also coveting his goods, even if I have not sought to obtain exclusive ownership of them myself. To covet a man’s wife is not only to want to obtain her for myself but to what to use her without her owner’s consent.

Jesus sounds as if he is in agreement with this restatement of the case. However, I think he questions the underlying assumption not only that women (or men) can be property but of property itself. If that is so, then it is wrong to covet a man’s wife because to do so is to conceive of her as property.

Any sort of coveting is wrong. It is wrong to covet another human being. It is also wrong to covet the land and the earth which belong to God. If we “possess” anything, it can only be as stewards of what belongs to God and of that which God alone has the exclusive rights. Thus we “possess” our children. Perhaps we can “possess” one another in this sense—when we are committed to ensuring each other’s welfare. Coveting has no place in these relationships, however, for we do not acquire them. They are given to us as a responsibility, not as an actual possession. In fact we cannot possess our children or each other.

You Shall Not Divorce Because You Cannot (5:31-32)

The Torah gives people permission to divorce their spouses, that is, to separate from them. Jesus says Moses gave this permission because of the hardness of our hearts (Deuteronomy 24:2). Okay: sometimes we are better off not remaining together. Certainly it is better than abusing each other.

What Jesus says is debatable. What does parektos logou porneias mean? Traditionally it has been translated, “except on the ground of unchastity” (where porneia is treated as a synonym for moicheia, adultery). Others translate it: “except for the case of an illicit marriage” (in a gentile marriage where incest is involved; Leviticus 18:6-18; see Acts 15:20, 29). Another translation is: “notwithstanding the word about immorality” (presumably the impropriety found in Deuteronomy 24:1).

In the first case, any marriage is dissolved by an act of infidelity. You are free to divorce your spouse (according to the Torah, you are required to divorce your spouse). In the second case, no marriage can ever be dissolved unless it was illegal to begin with. In the third case, no marriage can be dissolved at all.

I tend to think that when Jesus forbids divorce he is not forbidding separation, for the early church frequently permitted separation, especially when only one partner was a Christian (see, for example 1 Corinthians 7; the Acts of Paul and Thecla; and virgins and hermits in the early church, many of whom left their spouses). It would, moreover, be hard for us to condone a couple staying together if one partner abused the other (or both abused each other). Divorce is to make a final separation; to say you are no longer married.

Biblically, contrary to how people interpret Matthew 19:4-6, polygamy is not forbidden. A person can be married—in the sight of God—to more than one person, unless we want to consider many of the marriages of the Old Testament patriarchs and matriarchs as invalid. That you have separated from one person (not divorced them) does not forbid you from marrying another. So when Jesus says, “Everyone who divorces his wife … makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery,” the consequent is not because a second marriage occurs.

If you are in a polygamous marriage, what makes adultery? All things considered equal, a spouse does not commit adultery when she or he woos another to become married to them—unless that other is married to someone else, in which case, she or he would be taking the other away from their original spouse. She or he would then be a home-breaker.

According to the Jewish tradition, if any man violates another man’s wife, then he and the woman have committed adultery against the woman’s husband. One reason is that it can potentially confuse the issue of her husband’s heir. Every other reason seems to have to do with his exclusive rights over her. Adultery has nothing to do with her rights.

Historically (in the Bible), in a polygamous marriage, only the man is married to each of his wives and each wife to him. His wives cannot marry another man (that would be adultery). Are the wives, though, married to each other? Apparently not (historically, that is). But what about in the eyes of God? What if the wives could marry other men? (This would be the case in the resurrection when inheritance rights would not be an issue.) Would the men be married to each other in the eyes of God? In other words, is a polygamous marriage a cluster of binary marriages (as in Matthew 19:4-6) or are all the people married to each other? They all live under one roof. If there is no property to inherit, would not both arrangements be possible? In the resurrection of the just, are they all no longer married or are all the resurrected married to each other (Matthew 22:30-32)? If the later, then not only are both arrangements possible, but both coincide (so that each person has a binary relationship not to one but to every other person).

Of course, this would not be the case if marriage could only be between a man and a woman. However, as much as we would like to think that everyone falls into one or the other, that they are either male or female, for more people than is commonly recognized this is problematic. Speaking only of sex and not gender, many people are intersexed and many, without ever knowing it, have an extra X or Y chromosome, and some are surgically changed at birth, often without ever finding out. There is also the situation where one’s unconscious sex not aligning with the sex of one’s body, a condition that probably arose in utero. In other words, while there are two sexes (as an abstraction), people do not always fall neatly into one or the other of them. Are we to exclude these people from marriage? Perhaps marriage between people of different sexes (what is assigned to them at birth) is not the only form that marriage can take. (We are not even speaking of orientation now, since in arranged marriages that is not even a factor.)

For argument’s sake, let me propose this: If I divorce my wife, I presumably make her an adulteress by forcing her to marry someone else (for support; though she can possibly also return home to her parents or live with a relative). If I marry a woman whom another man has divorced then I am presumably committing adultery against him (since they are technically still married). In either case, if it is not the fact of a second marriage taking place that is adulterous, then adultery would seem to be the result of marrying someone else after a divorce. It is the divorce that makes the second marriage a case of adultery, not the fact that the first marriage has not been dissolved.

Or I am wrong and Jesus is here forbidding polygamy and insisting that marriage consists exclusively of the union of only two people without possibility of divorce (unless one of the two dies). If so, he would be invalidating many of the marriages of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament.

Perhaps Jesus is insisting that marriage consists exclusively of the union of only two people but he allows divorce in the case of one of the two people committing adultery. If my wife has not committed adultery (and neither have I) and I divorce her, then I supposedly force her to marry someone else, in which case she will commit adultery because she and I are technically still married. If I marry a divorced woman, who presumably is not guilty of adultery, then I commit adultery against her husband since she and he are also still technically married. Jesus would then be presupposing that the wife I divorce cannot return to her family and that the husband of the woman I want to marry did not divorce her for infidelity. Jesus would also still be invalidating the marriages of the patriarchs and patriarchs of Israel. These would all be unspoken assumptions.

If, however, if either of these views is correct, then adultery is the violation of the exclusivity of a monogamous relationship. But is this what adultery means? The Jews believed that adultery takes place when a wife has sex with a man who is not her husband. If she gets pregnant, then another man’s child could possibly inherit her husband’s property. This is the problem. If she were not his exclusive property, at his disposal, how could he ensure an heir for the rest of his property?

What, however, if adultery is not defined in terms of property rights? Perhaps Jesus is saying something else. Without property rights to consider, exclusivity is no longer a concern. Men and women could conceivably marry each other’s spouses. Then, if I cannot divorce my spouse at all, and neither can anyone else divorce theirs, the problem only arises when we act as if we can.

If marriage is about love and not property rights, then adultery probably refers to the violation of love, the kind of love that makes marriage what it is. We commit adultery when we treat the other person as a commodity that can be gotten rid of or obtained. Men create adultery when they deal in this kind of “economy.” Divorcing or acknowledging the divorce of another, treating the woman as though she were property—this is the economy of adultery: there is adultery either way—husbands have turned her into property that is shuffled between them—because it violates the inviolable relationship of love.

Moses permitted “divorce” (in this life) because of our hardness of heart. Jesus makes no room for divorce in view of its eschatological impossibility. We cannot divorce in this life because we will still be married in the age to come, married to everyone whom we have married, and no longer marrying or being given in marriage because we will all be married to each other. This eschatological future is what governs how we regard marriage in the present.

“Whatever [man] divorces his wife causes her to commit adultery [with him]”: If a man thinks that he has divorced his wife, she, rightfully considering herself still married to him, becomes an adulteress to her own husband (who believes they are divorced). For her, there is no solution other than her husband not “divorcing” her. Likewise, “whoever marries her who has been divorced commits adultery”: If the “divorced” woman marries again, her new husband, if he rightfully does not recognize that the divorce has taken place, in his own eyes he commits adultery against her husband, even
though her husband believes they are divorced. For him, too, there is no solution, since he cannot divorce his new wife, unless her first husband never “divorces” her.

 If divorce does not dissolve anyone’s marriage, and therefore does not really take place, and if the wife is not a commodity, then adultery would have to mean something different than its current use. Instead of adultery having to do with power, control, possessiveness, and grasping, it would have to do with violating the integrity of someone’s relationship to another. It would have to do with violating or disrespecting the boundaries of the relationships to which another is committed. It would have to do with violating their personhood and not honoring the sacredness of their relationships. The other person’s relationships must be honored in view of how they will blossom in the age to come.

You Shall Not Make an Oath: It Undermines Your Honesty (5:33-37)

In the fourth antithesis, Jesus forbids the swearing of oaths. Even though Jesus is consistent with this in Matthew’s gospel (see 26:63), it is a problem in the New Testament (Paul swears in 1 Thessalonians 2:5; Philippians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Romans 1:9; etc.). In the Old Testament vows go far back (“as the Lord lives …”). Even YHWH swears—on himself (Genesis 22:16; Exodus 22:11; Amos 6:8; 8:7). Yet Jesus apparently means it literally.

Numbers 30:3 says, “If a man makes a vow to YHWH or a formal pledge under oath, he must not break his word: whatever he promises by word of mouth he must do.” It does not matter how a person makes the vow or in what way people bind themselves to their word. They simply need to do what they say. Jesus opposes all these distinct ways: they do not matter and it is deceitful to imply that they do. People think that one promise is to be taken more seriously than another (see Leviticus 19:12 where God’s name is misused).

Supposedly the truthfulness of our word is undermined by the oath. Why does an oath make my word more truthful, and that by which I am swearing determine the degree of my truthfulness? God is our witness continually, and therefore everything we say ought to be the truth. “All you need say is ‘Yes’ if you yes, ‘No’ if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”

Many “oaths” in the Bible, by asking God to bear witness, are simply acknowledging that God is always our witness. It is not necessary to say it. Other kinds of oaths are more dubious, since “you cannot turn a single hair white or black.”

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